Deborah Scranton’s Frontline documentary, Bad Voodoo’s War, focuses on the experiences of a California National Guard platoon, showing us, as the website claims, “the war through [the soldiers'] eyes, filmed with their own video cameras.” In order to make the film, Scranton equipped the soldiers with cameras and then kept in close correspondence with the soldiers via IM and email as they continued to send her tapes of their experiences. The technique, which Scranton describes as a “virtual embed,” is more or less identical to the technique that she used in her 2006 documentary, The War Tapes (my review), in which Scranton depicted the stories of three soldiers from Charlie Company.
In Bad Voodoo’s War, Scranton revisits this technique, mixing in talking-head interviews with the soldiers taken before they go to Iraq or while they are home on leave. And while I found the soldiers’ stories in Bad Voodoo’s War individually compelling, Scranton’s use of this technique a second time exposed, to some extent, the limits of the format and, perhaps in a different way, the difficulties of making the virtual embed work within the Frontline format. As I was watching Bad Voodoo’s War, I found myself thinking about the late Paul Arthur’s argument in “Jargons of Authenticity,” in which Arthur interrogates “the formal embedding of truth claims, guarantees of authenticity, and hierarchies of knowledge” over the course of American documentary, and I do think it is well worth asking about how or why the virtual embed is being constructed as a more authentic representation of the Iraq War. I don’t mean to imply that anyone is concealing the truth of the Iraq War as they see it, but I’m also not convinced that Scranton goes far enough in acknowledging her role in constructing the soldiers’ stories or even the partiality of looking at the war solely through this lens.
That being said, the film featured a number of powerful moments, including the comment of one soldier who comments that despite his PTSD he is returning to Iraq for a fourth tour because of the connection he felt to his fellow soldiers. Others are fairly explicit in acknowledging their doubts about their mission in Iraq, which essentially consists of dodging IEDs while escorting convoys of food and supplies destined for private contractors working in Iraq, what the soldiers call “lettuce and tomato runs.” It’s also clear that these missions produce an incredible amount of strain, as this New York Times review suggests, particularly when Sfc. Toby Nunn instructs his soldiers to wear their “combat action tourniquet” on the leg closest to the door because it is more likely to be hit in an IED attack. The film also concludes essentially in the middle of a mission, reminding us that the soldiers featured in Bad Voodoo’s War are scheduled to be in Iraq until May. This abrupt ending is a healthy reminder that the war itself is ongoing, now well into its fifth year.
It’s also worth pointing out that Bad Voodoo’s War is accompanied by a fairly active website where soldiers featured in the film will be blogging and where some discussion of the film is taking place. The soldiers are also continuing to record video, and of course, the entire film is available online.
Update: While I’m thinking about it, there will be (or was, depending on when you’re reading this) a live chat with Deborah Scranton Wednesday, April 2, at 11 AM EDT, on the Washington Post website.